After decades of neglect, the Gonds are deciding their own linguistic future. The effort is noble but could have negative side-effects, says Ushinor Majumdar

Language barrier Gond tribals are spread across six states and each group has its own dialect, which is influenced by the regional language

Sixty-seven years and what have we got?” is the lament that rings across the tribal-dominated areas of India. Some will respond with “freedom”, others will say “you have quotas under reservation” and some will even say “social welfare schemes”.

While delivering his maiden speech in Parliament, Bhimrao Ambedkar had said, “We must march upon that road, which as I said, if we walk long enough, must necessarily lead us to unity.”

Sadly, the tribals may be right. We are being pulled closer to a greater chaos under an umbrella of Indian-ness — one that swallows whole indigenous cultures, tradition and languages for denying the authority of the Vedas.

Detractors need to note that Hindi and English became the country’s official languages by winning a single vote in their favour after a tie. All states were allowed to have their own regional language. But this did not take into account a nation of people that exists within this nation — the tribals.

A single language to unite the country might be important but history shows that it has continued the segregation of India’s most deprived people. Education through English and Hindi does not work for first-generation school-goers. Previous reports to this effect have generated ridiculous responses such as “Jharkhand’s languages are similar to Hindi.” Harbingers of such thought processes could opt for being air-dropped into Saranda forest and try to make their way around the villages believing Hindi to be similar to Ho.

The Gonds, a tribe present in at least six states and possibly numbering upwards of 50 lakh, will not take it anymore. Successive governments have failed them and they have decided to take the lingual bull by the horns and formulate a shuddh(pure) version of the language for all literary and official purposes. Constitutional sanction and executive implementation of that language is another matter, which, one can only hope, will not be a hurdle.

In 2012, a Supreme Court bench comprising Justices GS Singhvi and SJ Mukhopadhayay had noted, “We don’t want to enter into a discussion, but a day will come when the court will examine the expenditure made by the State in urban and tribal areas — how tribals have been cheated for more than 65 years; how their rights have been violated. The cry of the poor hasn’t been heard. The response isn’t adequate for them. Exploited, they take the law into their own hands.”

The Maoists have been using Gondi, written in Devanagari script (used for Sanskrit, Hindi and other Indian languages), to publish their magazines. When they visit villages in Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra, they converse with villagers in Gondi. That alone will win the villagers’ sympathy — the way globetrotters buy up sympathy of Indians settled overseas.

So, for the first stage, around 60 Gond tribals from six states (Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Odisha) got together in New Delhi to thrash out the bridge language. Over five days, they mostly listed out state-wise disparities in Gondi. Some words with the same meaning have different pronunciations for varying reasons. One of the reasons, it appears, is the influence of the regional language on the ways Gonds speak, thus, altering their language. Then, there is migration and there are also several unexplored reasons, which can only be assumed.

For example, it will require academic research into the roots of the Gonds, which they claim is the Indus Valley civilisation. They also claim they have decoded the Harappan hieroglyphics and have based their script on it.

The second step is to distil the various dialects of Gondi to create a shuddh Gondi to crystalise it for use and adoption into a standard Gondi dictionary.

One of the apparent problems is that it will be done at these workshops using a ‘highest common factor’ formula. The complementary problem is that various versions and dialects could stand to be diluted or worse — lost forever.

Former journalist Shubhranshu Choudhary started Adivasi Swara (a Gondi language podcasting platform for citizen journalism from the interiors of tribal territory) in 2013 augmenting CGNetSwara, which uses Hindi. His efforts won this year’s Digital Activism Award (Giving a voice to the voiceless, 22 March). But, he realised that there was no way to write news in Gondi because there was no script.

Sangram Markana, an engineering student, is developing the Gondi font but it also required a common Gondi language and a script for a language that has travelled orally through generations. The logical step forward was bringing together Gondi experts.

After Gondi, Adivasi Swara will work on Bhili and Santhali and Kuduk, which is spoken by the Oraon tribe.

“The regional languages, adopted by states, neglect the Adivasis,” says Choudhary. “For example, Bhili is spoken in four states but there has been no development of the language. In the case of Gondi, there is no standard language and these dialects are heavily influenced by state languages. So, you will find Hindi Gondi, Marathi Gondi, Telugu Gondi, etc. There are 50 lakh people who didn’t have a common platform till now. The project is being aided by the Indira Gandhi National Tribal University in Madhya Pradesh to publish the dictionary of a standard Gondi language.”

 Photo: Purushottam Thakur

Gond experts Dr Shyam Koreti of Nagpur University and Dr Metri of Karnataka University, Hampi, led the first workshop.

The Gonds were divided into five groups, comprising two from each state, to draw up a list of similarities and dissimilarities of the Gondi dialects. The members were from diverse backgrounds — government servants, bank workers, writers, phd scholars, fine arts practitioners, performing artistes, journalism students, etc.

“Journalism is in a dark zone in places such as Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh because you don’t get news from the interiors,” says Choudhary. “This is the same area where left-wing extremism has flourished because it is the lingua franca of the Maoist movement. They have several publications in Gondi and the government seems to have overlooked this. Ninety percent of the people are Maoist supporters but not Maoists. This is because Maoists talk to them in their language.”

A senior CRPF operations’ officer agrees with this thought. Members of the paramilitary force have faced hurdles locally because they don’t know Gondi and it creates a communication gap with the villagers and the frustration leads to mistrust from both sides, he says.

Gulzar Singh Markana is a government employee from Bhopalpur village in Mandala district of Madhya Pradesh. Markana’s father studied till the secondary level and he completed his higher secondary and now his son, Sangram, is studying engineering. This is the same Sangram who is developing a font for the Gondi script.

“Despite the push for development, there is a lack of innovation because our children are struggling with the burden of education and learning by rote,” says Markana. “There is no connection between English- and Hindi-based education and our original roots. If the vernacular language is used as a medium of instruction, it would speed up learning and grasping information and soaking up knowledge. Tribals are smart people and they have been hindered by the language barrier.”

According to Markana, igawara (Gondi in Madhya Pradesh), inge waa (Tamil), igawada (Gondi in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana), illi baa (Kannada) and ide bala (Tulu) all mean the same — come here. “This is because they originate from Gondi,” he says.

Government employee Prakash Namderao Salami, who has been working on Gondi literature for the past 20 years, supports the theory. “Gondi is the mother of all Dravidian languages and it is the proto-Dravidian language that scholars refer to.”

Academicians believe that proto- Dravidian was split into north, south and central proto-Dravidian around 450 bc. However, no credited studies could be found that could prove that Gondi is indeed the proto-Dravidian language that scholars have indicated.

Gonds believe the Indus Valley civilisation’s southward movement to be their origin and claim that they have cracked the Harappan hieroglyphics on which their script is based.

“We have found it on rocks and in forts dating back to the 12th-13th and 15th-16th century in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh,” says Markana. “They are similar to the ones found in Mohenjodaro- Harappa. Moti Rawan Kangali, our (Gondi) spiritual leader, has decrypted them while scholars have failed.”

Adds Salami, “Gondi is about to die because our children are not taught this language in school despite constitutional and political promises. Neither of my two children knows Gondi, nor does my wife. My grandfathers taught me Gondi and I learned a great deal listening to their generation speaking in Gondi. Gondi comes from the first civilisation of the world to which we trace our culture and traditions.”

The Harappan hieroglyphics can be found in Abujmarh in Chhattisgarh, Patalkot in Madhya Pradesh as well as Chandrapur near Gadhchiroli in Maharashtra.

The script is based on the work of Munshi Mangalsia Masaram of Gondwana in Madhya Pradesh around 1928. Another manuscript of Gunjali Gond was found but the current language will use Masaram’s script.

Arka Manikrao of Gunjala in Telangana’s Adilabad district is working as a coordinator of Gondi under the Central government’s Sarva Shikshya Abhiyan. He is preparing books on Gondi to educate Gond children.

A collective argument for promoting Gondi is that most countries don’t use English and that does not stop globalisation.

Choudhary says that the government should be promoting a language spoken by so many people, who are “also the poorest from every socio-economic standard. They should start education/ teaching in Gondi, which could help so many boys and girls get jobs instead of joining ranks with the Maoists”.

There is some opposition to the standardisation of the tribal language and its script and here starts an interesting debate.

Choudhary says that some are opposed to standardisation saying it will finish the originality of dialects, which is the case in any standardisation, especially if the standard Gondi becomes all-pervasive.

“But many dialects have survived and prospered even in the presence of a standard language, which has other usages,” he says. “We are not pushing for any particular script to be adopted but will bring people using the different scripts to the tribal university at the Amarkantak workshop and they will decide which script to go with if they do. We will strongly advise to use one script but it is their choice.”

Several linguists believe that indeed it might take away the essence of the dialects and the question is if it will also dilute any cultural practices and traditions that are attached to Gondi.

Salami and Markana argue that the dialect disparities are based on the influence of the regional languages and also vice-versa in some cases.

“We have observed that the effect of Gondi is visible in Gujarati and Hindi, but in the case of Marathi, there is more effect of Marathi on Gondi than the other way around,” says Salami.

One of the Gonds also suggested that the aboriginal music in Australia was similar to Gond music. Of course, this could cause researchers to palpitate a little considering the ideas around the African roots of music.

Spread the word The team used puppets to raise awareness about the standardisation endeavour. Photo: Purushottam Thakur

The creation of the bridge language and a script could help propagate the work of writers such as Shusheela Dhurwe (originally from Chhindwara, Madhya Pradesh) who lives in Indore. She has written books in Gondi and is learning Masaram’s Gondi script, which she plans to use to write her stories. The tales, she says, are historical, based on folklore learnt from her grandmother and other elders and by visiting the places she writes about.

“My grandmother was living in a forest village in Balaghat district. The village was located 10 km away from the nearest road,” she says. “Not just Gonds, people of all communities speak in Gondi there because that is how they speak with the Adiviasis. My grandmother used to tell me stories from Gondi folklore. Most of these stories appeared to be fictional until my father took me to the actual palaces. My father was posted in Mandala and I was amazed to see Raja Hardesha’s palace and know that he was a real person and the tales about him are true. That set me to find out about Gondi history and write and rewrite some of it.”

Indore-based Rang Prakashan has published her books, which include Mera Gondwana Mahan on Gond deities, rituals and traditions; Jai Gondwana on the Gond king of Devgarh, Raja Bakhta Buland. She is now working on a book on Gond Rani Durgawati of Garh Mandala.

“We intend to use the colloquial form of Gondi and I will continue to speak in my native dialect of Gondi, but in writing we will use the shuddh/bridge language,” she says. “The workshop showed us that there are very few differences in the dialects and the intellectuals gathered here will decide which ones to adopt. On the first day, we didn’t understand the dialects but we sat in teams with people who speak other dialects and were able to find out the differences and similarities.”

Pandu Metam of Dhundripeda village in Abujmarh, teaches at a government school in Murungwada. He teaches Hindi, English, Sanskrit, maths and social science and his experience is that it is tough to teach Gondi children and he spends a lot of time translating between Hindi and Gondi and English and Gondi. Non-Gondi media of instruction do not seem to work. “The students don’t understand English or Hindi, so I try to teach them in their mother tongue,” he says.

Metam’s point of view is that using Gondi would make it much simpler. According to him, the Chhattisgarhi dialect has least similarities with the other Gondi dialects but he does not have qualms about losing his dialect to the bridge language as long as the proposed standard Gondi dictionary carries synonyms in his dialect too.

The language goes hand-in-hand with the identity of the Gonds. As Jeetam Askole, a Gond from Siwni district, puts it, Gonds should use their own greetings too.

In the summer, teams were sent across Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh to talk about this workshop through street theatres and talks. They claim to have ground-level support, but government sanction is another matter.

The creation and adoption of Gondi may have political ramifications too and will not get sanction until the ruling party of the day sees any mileage from it. With around 50 lakh votes, it might create some ripples.